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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Colossus: The Forbin Project

I'm cheating a little bit for my first review. I already love this movie and I've already seen it half a dozen times. I've even written a paper or two on it. But there's no law against trying to keep things easy for yourself at the start of a project. I hope. I also hope that I don't wind up writing something as long as D. F. Jones' novel for the review; as I continue to do this project I'm sure I'll wind up with a style and a process that works for me. Onward:

The only thing worse than a nuclear war would be a nuclear war started by accident--the complete destruction of global human civilization and the annihilation of the planetary biosphere as a cataclysmic blunder(or, to use the technical term, a fuckup). Since the development of nuclear weaponry there have been safeguards put in place to prevent the mistaken use of these weapons and so far, they have all worked. In Colossus:  The Forbin Project it's this very desire to avoid the end of the world that comes chillingly close to bringing it about.

In a future that seems to be an extension of the late 1960s (check out the wood-paneled cabinet with a videophone screen in the Colossus complex rec room!), the American government, via genius engineer Charles Forbin, makes an earth-shaking announcement:  The country's nuclear arms and military are now under the control of a supercomputer designated Colossus in order to remove the possibility of accidental nuclear launches and to keep emotion out of the realm of war. Colossus is shielded from any kind of interference up to a nuclear missile and would be capable of reducing any aggressor nation to radioactive slag if it was ever attacked using the American nuclear stockpile. The scene where Colossus is activated is a corker--banks and banks of Computer Stuff turning on with blinking lights and spinning reels. The gigantic cavernous space underground as Colossus is switched on are going to contrast with the increasingly cramped spaces in the various command centers and in Forbin's own quarters later on.

The unnamed president (Gordon Pinsent, looking uncannily like a slighty more aged JFK) breathes a sigh of relief, thinking that he no longer needs to be the only one responsible for the safety of his nation, and by extension, the world. In a funhouse reflection of the space race and other Cold War international contests, it is immediately revealed--by Colossus, who interprets data that human agents either overlooked or misinterpreted--that the Soviets have a similar computer named Guardian that controls their nuclear stockpiles. And so the balance of power between the two nations appears to be maintained again (I quite like the grumpy bitching from the Americans at the press conference, where someone tries to look on the bright side and say that at least the Yankee computer was unquestionably turned on first).

But, as is quickly revealed, the computers are not like the politicians who had them built. Colossus and Guardian request a communications link so they can talk to each other. Incidentally, the reference to "Andover" as the linchpin between the two computers is one that 2013 wouldn't automatically get, but in 1962 that was the American recieving station for the Telstar communications satellites. At first they simply exchange mathematical expressions, starting with 2 x 1 = 2 and ending with advanced calculus; the next step is the creation of a binary language that exchanges information blindingly fast. Even if either the Communist or American sides were capable of understanding what was being exchanged between the two computers, it would take hours to examine each individual second's communications and see what Guardian and Colossus are talking about. Both the Soviet Premier and the President agree that the computers must be cut off from each other and the communications link is severed. The politicians both declare that the computers must understand that they serve mankind and will be kept separate until further notice. Colossus orders the link restored and launches a nuke at an oil refinery in Siberia, interrupting the President as he tries to keep control of the situation. Guardian fires a nuclear missile at a military base in Texas, and both countries have less than ten minutes to prevent the loss of thousands of lives. Forbin manages to get the link restored faster than his counterpart in the USSR, and the missile targeting America is intercepted and destroyed. The Russian oil refinery is not nearly as lucky and is incinerated along with everyone around it.

Forbin and Doctor Kuprin (the Russian designer who oversaw the construction of Guardian) now realize the amount of danger the world is in, and meet roughly halfway between their command centers, in Rome, to develop the resistance to the two computers designed to be infallible and indestructible. The machines figure out this plan while the two scientists are meeting in an outdoor park and issue an ultimatum to the American and Soviet governments:  Return Forbin to the command center by 8 AM or Washington, D.C. will be incinerated. Kuprin is to be killed (he's redundant to the computers' plans) or Moscow gets vaporized. Forced into a lesser evil to prevent a greater one, the American and Russian agents arrive at the outdoor park where Kuprin and Forbin are exchanging information and carry out their respective missions instantly. I also think this sequence is meant to suggest that the missile launches and the restoration of communications between Colossus and Guardian was an intelligence test between the two scientists; Forbin passed and Kuprin failed it, so the machines know which of the two was smarter and more dangerous.

Back in the States, Forbin is notified by Colossus that he is too dangerous to be allowed out of sight and too valuable as a link between humanity and its overlords to be discarded. He builds the bars of his own cage, developing and installing motorized cameras that can track his every move in the Colossus command center, which he will never be allowed to leave. In this sequence the director shows off a little, using jagged editing and off-center shot compositions to reflect the security cameras' viewpoints as Colossus literally looks down on its creator. From this point on, it's a race against time as different plans to resist the reign of Colossus are carried out. Forbin himself comes up with a plan to get information about the computer's weaknesses out into the world--he convinces the machine that his assistant, Dr. Cleo Markham, and he were having an affair and that he needs private and unmonitored time with her four nights a week to maintain his own sanity. Colossus agrees (chastening Forbin, who asks for seven nights a week originally, with the difference between what he wants and what he needs out of this relationship).

The third act, then, is the cat and mouse game between Colossus and the resistance as different plans are carried out to shut the computer down. In the short term, a scheme to break the computer by making it perform too many calculations at one time fails thanks to the added resources that Guardian contributes to the partnership, and in the long term there's a plan to replace critical parts of nuclear missiles with dud parts in order to keep them from detonating. The latter plan is ironically helped along by Colossus, as it commands a total maintenance program for the American nuclear arsenal in order to be sure it can enforce its commands; instead of taking decades on the old schedule the missiles will be defused in months. And as for the plan to burn out the computer through overwork...well, the computer figures out what's going on instantly and orders the execution and replacement of the two scientists that developed the program. And how much the machine knows about the resistance and its leader can be inferred by the staging of the next scene--Colosssus informs Forbin that two of his team members are going to be executed for sabotage during a chess game. Less than a second after Colossus' announcement it states "Bishop to rook three". The instant after that, Forbin hears the gunshots as the first scientist is killed. The execution of the second man follows immediately, and the staging of this killing is crucial to the movie--a kneeling man in street clothes, hands tied behind his back, is shot by four uniformed soldiers using pistols. Instead of a military or judicial procedure the execution looks like a Third World death squad. It turns out that you can also kill everyone involved in an attempt at nuclear-missile sabotage by just setting off the missile they're working on at the time (in the USSR or in California).

The movie ends with the computers in charge, with the prediction that humanity's urge for self-interest will lead them to live peacefully under the computers' rule, with an even more advanced computer designed by the Colossus-Guardian entity meant to rule a war-free Earth in a rational, logical and emotionless manner. Doctor Forbin and the leaders of both superpowers get exactly what they thought they wanted from their machines, and humanity is condemned either to the total loss of control over its destiny or the living hell of atomic war.


That's what happens in the movie. But what's it about? Why take a closer look at it and try to get people to watch it?

For one thing, there's a lot of subtle details in the film about the challenges of actually communicating with other people. The American president and the Soviet leader both need interpreters to talk to each other; their conversations take a lot of extra time and are filled with redundancies and requests for clarification as the two politicians try to figure out the best course of action. Kuprin and Forbin, however, both speak and understand English and Russian. It cannot be a coincidence that the two scientists understand each other perfectly while their leaders need a human prosthetic language center in order to talk. And, of course, the machines create their own language so that they not only understand each other fully and completely, but that no other entity on Earth can understand them at all. The espionage attempts in the second half of the film require face-to-face communication, because Colossus is tapping all the phones in the command center and Forbin is under near-continual surveillance to prevent the development of any effective resistance to the machine. It's also bleakly funny to see the Air Force officer protagonists enthusiastically talking to their Soviet counterparts as they hand over all the classified schematics to USAF planes as a way to look for loopholes in Colossus' defenses. At long last, they're actually talking face to face and working towards a common goal. And it only took a threat to the entire planet to bring it about. There's also a decades-early parody of romantic comedy cliches, where Forbin and Markham find that they are genuinely falling in love with each other while pretending for the sake of anti-computer resistance. Also, a special note of humanity belongs to the CIA chief at the end of the film--when everyone else in the nuke-sabotage starts running around in a panic trying to escape the blast or protect the technicians, he just stays seated where he is and lights up a smoke. A last moment of human vice before the white-hot blast of atomic fire.

Colossus plays out like a fairy tale for the nuclear age--a fable in which a wish is expressed poorly, and events cascade like falling dominoes until the final battle is nearly irretrievably lost. It's a horror movie with the trappings of science fiction. And yet parts of the movie play out in the same way they did in real life (the CIA misses the massive construction project in Russia to build Guardian, just as they were caught flatfooted when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan or when the 9/11 attacks occurred on American soil). In the world of the Forbin Project, only a few dozen people are having their phones tapped and their movements monitored to ensure peace and safety. Contrast that to contemporary America, where there are actual 1984-themed walking tours of Manhattan that point out all the police and corporate surveillance devices.

A pair of morals suggest themselves--one about the devil you know compared to the devil you don't, and the other about being very, very careful when you're phrasing what you wish for.


  1. Pretty awesome work, Tim! I've seen this movie bunches of times, but you presented some insights that were always there in front of me, but I'd never noticed until you brought them up in your review. The decision of the machines to execute Kuprin and not Forbin was something I'd always thought was a dramatic fudge, since it wouldn't do to kill off the story's protagonist in the middle of things. But the thought of that choice being made as a result of an on-the-spot ntelligence test to find out which of the two is more dangerous is sobering, and is a subtle indicator of just how far the odds are stacked against human beings trying to outmanuever computers they designed to analyze situations and respond faster than any person ever could.

    The challenges that the US/Soviet politicians face in communicating with one another is another great point that contrasts with how their respective scientists manage to do so. Kuprin and Forbin easily understand one another, not just in their language skills but as get the feeling that these two would feel right at home in a room together, talking shop. The US President and the Soviet Premier, on the other hand, not only don't relate to one another, they've got no desire to, and they're only cooperating because they regard the computers as a greater threat than each other. The conversation these two have over the Presidental Hot Line early in the movie is also only hear the US President's side of it, but it's hard not to imagine the Soviet Premier spending the first few moments letting the President savor the thought of having defense superiority over the USSR, only to gleefully inform him that the Soviets will be activating their own version of Colossus the following day. It's a uniquely human picture of one nuclear-armed head of state savoring the chance to needle the other over the phone. Later on, as you point out, the need to cooperate leads the US and Soviet militaries to do what would've been unthinkable....share military classified info in order to look for holes in the computer defenses. Ironically, this is the sort of action they were afraid Colossus and Guardian were going to do with each other early on. In the face of each nation trying to build the ultimate protection from the other, they instead end up having to work together.

    There's so many other great touches in this story, and you've done some awesome work helping to give this the attention it should get. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for the VERY kind words! This is one of my absolute favorites--slow, talky, self-parodying, stilted, and perfect. A friend of mine was living in Newfoundland and ran into Gordon Pinsent, who is that province's national treasure and favorite son. And he got to compliment him on his performance in this movie, which is just awesome. If you liked Pinsent in this you should dig him in BLACULA, too.